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July 31, 2006


Mike Huben

"Libertarians are highly skeptical of such arguments, however, again because the benefits of intervention rarely seem to exceed the costs."

Here we have a typical ideological prescription that gives no way to say when an intervention is justified until after the costs are tallied. And of course, it attaches no weight to benefits that WE don't receive. I'd love to see Mr. Miron point out any historical interventions where he could have claimed the benefits exceeded the costs BEFORE the intervention.

A much more sensible, pragmatic method is to see what the rest of the world thinks of proposed interventions. See what the UN membership thinks, for example. See which other nations are willing to join in and contribute, and which think the benefits are important.

A sensible alternative to automatic ideological naysaying is collaborative evaluation.


I. "In the Iraq situation, the case for benefits-greater-than costs was weak."

As Gary Becker argued persuasively, "No terrorist attack has taken place in the U.S. since 9/11, including the three years after the war started... the circumstantial evidence would suggest that the war might have decreased the probability of attacks in the U.S. This could be because terrorists have been busy concentrating on Iraq, or because we have killed many who might have been involved in such attacks... if Iraq stabilizes reasonably soon, has a decent government, and starts to progress economically, the war would have been a success. I say this not only because the war got rid of a cruel and dangerous dictator who inflicted immense harm on his own people, and who would have used highly destructive weapons on others if he ever obtained them. In addition, a stable and progressive Iraq is likely to have beneficial effects on Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other bad regimes in the Middle East that will directly benefit the whole free world, possibly including creating a background for a peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors..." (Becker-Posner Blog, 3/19/06)

II. "Saddam had no incentive to use WMDs against the U.S. or its allies, since that would have caused an invasion and his removal."

This assumes that Saddam understood the logic of deterrence. But his own conduct shows he did not. After all, he tried to assassinate a fomer President of the United States and gave safe habror to anti-American terrorists like al-Zarqawi and abu Nidal. He also subsidized suicide bombers in Israel--not the bahavior of a man who is afraid to provoke a war.

II. "And given the uncertainty that existed pre-invasion about the WMDs, the case for invasion on self-defense grounds was weaker still."

No, it was precisely that uncertainty that justified invasion. In the truce he had signed after the first Iraq War, Saddam had agreed to weapons inspections. He then refused to cooperate. In the wake of 9/11 any Presdient would have been alarmed by the nexus in Iraq of WMD's and anti-American terrorists. And all intelligence reports indicated that Iraq had substantial ongoing WMD programs, including a nuclear program.

IV. "The common endorsement of the Iraq invasion by libertarians is thus puzzling and disheartening."

Not really. Libertarians have a natural disdain for tyranny, whether fascism, communism or other forms. So it is natural for libertarians to wish to strke at tyrants when there seems a strong likelihood that they pose a threat.

To borrow again from Gary Becker, "The future looks precarious at present, but it is too early to throw in the towel and conclude that the war was a costly failure."


Dr. Miron,

In at least one important sense, you seem to disagree with Friedman on Iraq. Friedman would have agreed with you that the decision to invade was a bad one, but his view is that now, the best thing to do is to stay and win. Your view of the present, if I recall, is that the best course is to withdraw.



"A sensible alternative to automatic ideological naysaying is collaborative evaluation"

Exactly what are the collaborators supposed to use as a basis for evaluation?


Funny that you didn't quote Rose Friedman's view on the Iraq war. She states an interesting point about a difference between attack Saddam and the people of Iraq.

Matt Rognlie

Isocrates, the problem with Becker's defense of the Iraq war is twofold. First, its circumstantial argument for the terror-prevention benefits of the war is in the long term both unconvincing and morally deficient. Both of Becker's postulated mechanisms hinge, at the deepest level, upon the "magnet" theory of Iraq: that our invasion and the subsequent chaos attracted terrorists to the region who would otherwise have attacked us. This may be true. But in the long term, assuming that Iraq will not permanently fall into disarray, this cannot continue to be a "benefit." In fact, the invasion has further damaged Muslim attitudes toward the United States (just look at polls!) and quite possibly increased the long run terrorist supply. And regardless of these strategic considerations, the magnet theory is immoral: since when has the terror-prevention policy of the United States been to divert terrorists to another country and make it a hellhole?

Second, Becker's defense utilizes an implausible conditional: "if Iraq stabilizes reasonably soon, has a decent government, and starts to progress economically, the war would have been a success." Have we seen any indication that this might be the case? Color me a pessimist, but all I see is a deeply fractured society rapidly approaching all-out civil war. Time for a historical question: can you think of any past circumstance where regular ethnic/religious mass killings have immediately presaged the development of a stable, model democracy? Without unbelievable carnage and atrocities of historical magnitude?

Libertarianism rests its suspicion of government intervention upon two basic principles: first, that interventions are often poorly conceived; and second, that they are usually poorly executed. The Iraq mess exemplifies both.

Mike Huben

"Exactly what are the collaborators supposed to use as a basis for evaluation?"

I'm not surprised that you can't imagine any alternatives to following ideological rules.

How do people decide on the price of gold? Not by ideology.



I'm puzzled by your response. I asked you what the collaborators are supposed to use as a basis for evaluating future courses of action in Iraq. While I'm quite able to imagine lots of alternatives to ideological rules, I don't see how accusing me of a failure of imagination answers the question. I also can't imagine why you would resort to personal attacks if you could actually had an argument. Any answer to my question, good or bad, would at least be an answer to the question, that is, it would have offered some basis of evaluation. You response offers none.

To set the better example here, I'll answer your question. People make their bids and asks in the gold market. Those bids and asks become prices when a bid exceeds or is equal to an ask. They choose their bids and asks in many ways, ranging from astrology to statistical forecasting and in some cases, ideology. Additionally, the major trading firms of the world engage in "fixes" in London in a morning and an evening session.

To generalize all of this, the price of gold is decided through the voluntary exchange of private property by its owners or persons designated by them to excahgne their property. If you mean to imply that decisions regarding Iraq should be made in the same way, I agree. In this case, however, there would be no need for UN collaboration. Property owners could make their decisions independently.

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